In Olivier Assayas’ outstanding new film Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart makes undeniable something that fans (and Assayas himself) have been saying for years: The former Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman star is, improbably, one of the most superb actresses of her generation. Or maybe it’s not that improbable: In many ways, Stewart’s remarkable distinctiveness resembles the best American actresses of the ’70s. The same way that Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek were singular in what they could bring to a part—Duvall a barely suppressed desperation, Spacek a powerful otherness—Stewart’s recent streak of outstanding work shows an almost religious commitment of body and mind.
But where Spacek got to star in Terrence Malick’s visionary Badlands in just her second film role, and Duvall became a Robert Altman player right off the bat, Stewart is similarly a product of her times, having had to slog through today’s studio fare before gaining the power to make her own way. But looking back at the actress’s earlier performances from the vantage point of an era where it’s much more acceptable to praise her talent, it’s clear that her skills were always there; the shock and surprise over Stewart’s recent “transformation” into an award-winning actress has much more to do with Hollywood than it does her.
First, it’s worth talking about where she’s at now. In Personal Shopper, Stewart plays Maureen, an American in Assayas’s Paris, working as a personal shopper for a megafamous model, Kyra. Maureen’s life is a cat-and-mouse game of trying to figure out what country her employer is in at any given moment, and she spends a significant—and increasingly meaningful—amount of time in Kyra’s apartment alone. It’s a fully subservient role, to the point that, over Skype, her sorta-boyfriend asks her why she continues to demean herself with it.
The answer: because she’s waiting to make contact with the ghost of her twin brother Lewis, who recently died in France. What follows is a metaphysical meditation on ghosts, grief, and power, all three morphing constantly from one into the other; Assayas calibrates the film with a stunning constancy that helps hold together what could otherwise have felt like disparate parts, and a spare tone that never undercuts the tension and plausibility of Maureen’s quest. It’s one of the best movies of the year so far, and it only works because of Stewart.
In the role, Stewart doesn’t act so much as inhabit a persona. She’s a full-body actor, her hands and arms and shoulders and back working as hard as her mouth and her eyes. As Maureen, Stewart broadcasts a crushing insecurity, a discomfort with even the simple act of being alive; she’s constantly opening beers and brewing coffees and then leaving them behind unconsumed. (The only liquid we see her drink with any ease is straight vodka.) During the film’s most frightening scene, she’s practically animalistic, reacting to a spectral threat like a dog might; the scene ends with her curled up on the ground. It’s a committed performance, but more than that, it’s a deeply felt one. The movie deliberately blurs the line between Stewart and Maureen, leaving her tattoos uncovered and dressing her in a style reminiscent of how she dresses in real life. In interviews, Assayas has been giving Stewart co-authorship of the film, and it’s not hard to see why.
While Stewart bleeds into Maureen, the performance is still far different than her other recent parts. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart played the role of Val, the assistant to Juliette Binoche’s actress Maria Enders. The job description is the same, but the effect is not; here she functions as a reflection of Binoche, playing off of and around her scene partner. She’s a beguiling presence, an intoxicant and a provocateur, the promise and threat of youth personified. Her cool approach, not as aggressive and fragile as her work in Personal Shopper but no less in control, gives Val an unpredictable quality. She’s familiar but unknown, and by the end of the movie, that balance shifts in a major way.
In her other great recent film, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Stewart plays a lawyer named Elizabeth who becomes the object of fascination for an unnamed rancher played by Lily Gladstone. The rancher inadvertently ends up in Elizabeth’s night class, which she has to drive four hours to get to and four hours to get home from, and Stewart wears the burden of that distance like an illness. All Gladstone can think about is her, but all Stewart can think about is her commute, and the gap between them—at one point
If these roles seem fundamentally different from Stewart’s more famous work, though, the only difference comes in the quality of the film around her. While Stewart has certainly matured and improved as an artist, her style in these later movies—naturalistic, physical, and decidedly un-actorly—has always been there, waiting for the right showcase. It’s easy to forget that her career didn’t start with Twilight. Stewart’s first big role came in 2002, when she starred alongside Jodie Foster, Jared Leto, and Forest Whitaker in David Fincher’s Panic Room. In that film, Stewart and Foster are tasked with being very, very scared, and Stewart’s a perfect performer for the job: She’s tense, coiled, alert, with eyes that almost leap out of her sockets. Cooped up inside the titular room for much of the movie, Stewart has the challenge of playing inside a small space opposite the veteran Foster, but she never shrinks from the task.
Stewart’s other pre-Twilight work is a mix of indies, but she reached another peak with a small role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. As Tracy Tatro, a girl Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless meets in Slab City, Stewart—only 17 at the time of the film’s release—demonstrates a natural capacity for vulnerability; the way she chews on her lip when she first approaches McCandless provides an early hint of the micro-gestures she’ll bring to her future roles. Her physicality is even more obvious in the way she moves around space; she’s equally comfortable and unfamiliar with herself.
Twilight would come to define Stewart’s star image, despite the inclusion of a few other contrasting performances in The Runaways, On the Road, and Adventureland over the next few years. But how could it not? The vampire franchise was an enormous hit, making over $3 billion worldwide across five different films. Oddly, it’s also produced two of our better young actors in Stewart and Robert Pattinson, who himself has spent the last half-decade turning himself into a sooty character actor.
But here’s the thing about Stewart in Twilight: She’s really trying. Twilight is essentially a melodrama, and more than that, a melodrama for teens; by design, it’s a genre that hems its actors into their roles, demanding that they serve the emotional arc above all else. At least in a movie like The Fault in Our Stars, there’s a sense of humor buttressing the capital-E emotion. With Twilight, the only deviations from the Sturm und Drang are the wish-fulfillment fantasy elements and the vampire fights, neither of which are exactly an outlet for showing you’re in on the joke. In these kinds of roles, you’re never going to be Marlon Brando. Instead, you can either perform the part with a winking self-awareness, or you can go forth into the emotional breach, being the best emo teen you can be.
Stewart takes the latter route, and her dedication gives Bella an essential pathos and sincerity. It’s the right decision for the character, even if it’s also one that opens you up to accusations of unseriousness, or frivolity. Performances in films like these benefit or suffer greatly in the editing room, usually in concert with the quality of the film itself. But this isn’t meant to apologize for Stewart in the role. Not to pick on Lautner, but if you look at this scene from Eclipse, you can see the contrast between Stewart’s interior condition, its fluctuations constantly flashing across her face, and Lautner’s two-dimensional angst. As Bella, Stewart moves seamlessly with the character’s arc, and that’s a necessary component of any performance in an audience-avatar role.
Since being released from the clutches of the franchise, however—an experience that can be both liberating and stultifying for a young actor—Stewart has truly shined. And it’s not just in the stellar work of Assayas and Reichardt, either. She’s been the sole reason to see even lesser films like the uneven American Ultra, flat Equals, and rote Café Society, lending them a joyful sincerity (Ultra), an emotional compass (Equals), and a moral weight (Café Society). Her ongoing onscreen partnership with Jesse Eisenberg, with whom she’s now co-starred in Adventureland, American Ultra, and Café Society, is an especially gratifying element of her career, and one that seems to still be hinting at more greatness to come. As for Stewart’s individual potential, she’s already more than delivering on that: We’re unlikely to see a better performance this year than the one she gives in Personal Shopper, and certainly not a better scene between an actress and a phone.